The poet who touched hearts with his moving tribute to Canada during the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremonies says he's been caught by surprise by the warm reaction to his work.
Penticton, B.C.-based Shane Koyczan is the winner of the U.S. Slam Poetry Championship and Canadian Spoken Word Olympics, but his appearance at the Vancouver Games has given him a much higher profile.
"It's definitely taken my art form to a whole new plateau, which is really nice and it's given me a platform to talk about things like cuts to the arts and what the government has been doing about that — that the Cultural Olympiad was kind of a one-night stand for the arts," he said in an interview with CBC News in Toronto on Thursday.
There was even pressure from other B.C. artists not to participate in the Olympics, because of the province's slashing of arts budgets, but Koyczan said the opportunity to highlight his art was too good to pass up.
He admits he was terrified as he stood up there on the three-metre podium. It wasn't only the thought of performing his We Are More in front of 3.5 billion people — Koyczan is also afraid of heights.
He was strapped in with a safety harness but couldn't summon the courage to walk around on the podium.
Koyczan congratulates VANOC, the Olympic organizers, for including poetry in the ceremony.
"I thought it was a return to tradition," he said. "When you think about the Olympic ceremonies back in the Greek days of the originals games, they didn't have multi-platform artists, they had storytellers and bards … If they had an opening ceremony I'm sure that was what it was composed of."
Koyczan is to perform We Are More, a moving ode to Canada, in Toronto's Eaton Centre on Thursday.
As a slam poet, he regularly tours the world with his work. That experience of being on the road gave him the perspective to write about his own country, he said.
"I was away from Canada for a long long time and in writing that, it really was a reflection on what do I love about my country," he said.
Lines such as "you might say the home of the Rocket or The Great One" address some stereotypes people ask him about when he's travelling, he said.
"They don't come from a place of ignorance, this is what people have heard. So I want to address these stereotypes and say 'OK, yes, well [that] technically maybe true, but we're really a little bit more than that.'"
It was a challenge to narrow down a definition of Canada to a few lines, Koyczan said, adding that he wanted to address the multicultural aspect.
"The original poem was a much longer poem — to really try to edit it was really hard to find the right lines and wanting to give a shout-out to Chinatown and Little Italy because they are such a vibrant part of any metropolis as well."
Koyczan's first published collection, Visiting Hours, was critically acclaimed and he is signing copies in Toronto on Thursday.
He also has a project going with George Miller, director of Mad Max, in Australia and is touring with his band.